Which Country; Which Language?

Guest Article:
By John Greenwood

InterPro Translation Solutions

There are choices you must consider when translating for some countries with multiple languages and into some languages that are used in multiple countries.

English is English, Spanish is Spanish, Portuguese is Portuguese, Belgian is Belgian, Swiss is Swiss and Chinese is Chinese — true? Well not quite. For starters, two of the six are not languages (but describe great chocolates!).

This article explains some of the choices you must consider when translating for some countries with multiple languages and into some languages that are used in multiple countries.

I will make some generalizations, but especially if you are taking products into different countries, do seek advice from your local subsidiary or distributor — a consumer-oriented environment is likely to be more sensitive to language variants than business to business.

Most countries have multiple languages and some languages are spoken in many countries. My native United Kingdom counts as native languages English, Welsh, Gaelic (Scottish and Irish), Cornish (in part of the southwest), Manx (on the Isle of Man between England, Scotland and Ireland) and others. However, English is the dominant language understood by just about the entire population and although the Welsh and Scots may disagree, there is little practical need to translate into other UK languages.

The same is not true for some other countries.

Belgium is a relatively “new” country formed in 1830. Dutch (Flemish) is spoken in the north, and French in the south. Although I have worked for a company that translated Belgian French and Dutch separately from the standard French and Dutch varieties, generally, Belgians understand their neighbors’ languages. Belgian Dutch tends to retain traditional Dutch words whereas the more liberal Netherlands Dutch more readily adopts English words. Belgian French and “standard” French are very similar to each other and standard French (for France) generally serves both.

Switzerland has four languages: German (spoken by the majority), then French, then Italian, and about 1% Romansh. Although the spoken Swiss-German is quite different from that spoken in Germany and Austria, it has no written equivalent and the variants of all languages for Germany, France, and Italy work fine in Switzerland; there is no need to generate separate Swiss variants.

Some languages are common to many countries, especially English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

To be culturally sensitive, especially at a consumer level, British and American English should be treated as separate locales. However, if you are going to pick just one, American English would be the variant of choice as Brits are more used to American English spelling and terminology and generally accept it (sometimes through grated teeth!), but the same is not true vice-versa. Canada probably has a preference for British English, but is more used to American than their transatlantic counterparts. Other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa also probably have a preference for British English, but American English will be understood and generally accepted.

European French differs from Canadian French in terms of some terminological and stylistic preferences, however the more technical the subject matter, the fewer the differences. European French also tends to more readily adopt certain English words than Canadian French. If your product or service target markets are Quebec and France, it would be advisable to localize your product into the appropriate language for each market (Canadian French for Quebec and “standard” French for France). The similarity between the two variances of French lends itself to being a “make-from” language: once content has been translated into one or the other versions of French, it is feasible to edit the translation in order to be acceptable in the alternate geography (as opposed to translating from scratch).

Spanish needs additional consideration. Each Spanish-speaking country has its own variant and use of words. So Spain is different from Mexico is different from Peru is different from Argentina is different from … well you get the picture! However, especially at a business level, it is possible to translate into “Latin American Spanish”that will be generally accepted throughout Central and South America. European Spanish is your choice if your target is Spain.

One may also translate into a “Universal Spanish” that is generally acceptable worldwide. However, there will be some compromises the “higher” you go and if you are targeting just one or two countries, and have no plans in the near term to expand elsewhere, you would be generally advised to pick the Spanish that most closely matches your target audience.

Portuguese is a different story! Brazilian and European Portuguese have drifted far enough away from each other that you should translate for one or the other; there is no “Universal Portuguese┬Ł.” So if you are targeting Brazil and Europe, you require two separate Portuguese translations.

China has numerous spoken languages and dialects, Mandarin being the most universal and common. However, there are two modern written versions of Chinese: Traditional and Simplified. Traditional Chinese was the written Chinese prior to the formation of the People’s Republic of China (a.k.a. PRC or Mainland China) in 1949. Simplified Chinese was derived from Traditional Chinese by the PRC in order to simplify many of the ideographic characters and promote literacy.

Traditional Chinese is used in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Even though the dialect spoken in Hong Kong and Macau is Cantonese, Traditional Chinese is used for print media, but with a few differences as Cantonese requires a few characters that are not used in Mandarin. Singapore has adopted Simplified Chinese and although Hong Kong has seen more Simplified Chinese since its re-incorporation into PRC in 1997, Traditional Chinese still dominates.

Simplified and Traditional Chinese have many similarities, and those accustomed to Traditional Chinese can read Simplified Chinese more easily than the other way around. However, for the People’s Republic of China, translations should be done into Simplified Chinese. Although a PRC native may be able to read Traditional Chinese, they most likely would not be able to write it as well. Thus, the traditional axiom of using a native translator of the target language still applies.

Somewhat strangely you may think, it is easier to translate English into both Simplified and Traditional Chinese than it is translating one into the other. There is a character set issue (Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters do not co-exist in most computer codepages) and translators generally find it easier using English as the source.

So, if your target is PRC (Mainland China) or Singapore, Simplified Chinese is your language of choice. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau require Traditional Chinese (with a few differences for Hong Kong and Macau).

I apologize that I have over-generalized to some extent and oversimplified some cultural issues. I am not suggesting that language variants (Belgian French and Dutch) and less common languages (Welsh, Gaelic) are unimportant or insignificant. I have tried to take a practical approach to the localization effort required to take products internationally, and while the Belgian French might prefer their French, they would prefer standard French to English!

About the Author
John Greenwood is Vice President of Business Development for Lombard, Ill.-based InterPro Translation Solutions, which provides translation, software localization, multilingual desktop publishing and project management solutions. He can be reached at (858)486-1848 or jgreenwood@interproinc.com.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

5 thoughts on “Which Country; Which Language?”

  1. This is a very useful and concise overview, thanks for writing it!

    I understand that you are not out play down the importance of regional languages such as Welsh, but I would like to add that even a multinational business might want to consider translating into these. Many small languages mean a lot to their speakers emotionally and they are likely to pay more attention if you talk to them in their preferred language – just like Belgian French speakers prefer Belgian French, even if they don’t always insist on it.

    And just one more thing: the way you’ve used the term Gaelic would suggest that it is a single language with two variants, Scottish and Irish. This would be a misunderstanding. The general consensus is that these are two separate but related languages, with separate ISO codes (‘gd’ and ‘ga’ respectively), and I can confirm from my own experience that they are not mutually comprehensible: I speak one fluently but understand next to nothing of the other.

  2. Very concise overview, John, thank you.

    About the situation in Belgium, I would like to point out that your statement “Belgians generally understand their neighbours’ language” is not correct: all Belgians understand the language written in the Netherlands and France, as well as the spoken languages, provided the regional accent is not too strong. The differences in word usage you pointed out do not prevent understanding.

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